This paper was presented at the online conference under the theme “Fighting Against Terrorism: New Challenges and New Needs” which took place on February 16th– 18th February 2021 in Rabat. The event was organized by the Executive Board Committee of the Moroccan Observatory on Extremism & Violence (OMEV), in partnership with the Policy Center for the New South (PCNS), the “Délégation générale à l’Administration Pénitentiaire et à la reinsertion (DGAPR), and the Rabita Mohammadia of Ulema.
- We can all agree that extremism is a rising problem and it risks destabilizing our societies. We cannot talk about extremism as a cause nor a product of other factors. Extremism co-evolves with social conflict, poverty, exclusion, and alienation, individually and collectively.
- Therefore, we can try to address extremism but not as a disease in itself, as some would like to, but as a symptom of a wider underlying issue. We must also be reticent in ascribing single causes to this issue since the truth is often more complex and defies simple models, especially when our thinking is so heavily informed by our particular cultural biases. One example in this regard is to ascribe the appearance of terrorism to poverty and lack of education, disregarding the large numbers of highly educated and otherwise successful people who become radicalized enough to commit terror acts.
- Another issue we must be aware of is the fundamental attribution error – the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual’s observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations for their behavior. This effect has been described as “the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are”. This can be extended also to collectives of people, as we have seen over the years with the various instances of terrorism, whether Irish, Basque, Sikh, Tamil, in addition to the ones that loom large today.
- Many would shake their heads and emphasize their own efforts to avoid such instances, and they would be right in certain instances. But extremism today is far more widespread and I have personally seen that the benefit of the doubt, the forbearance and patience awarded to some groups and cultures is not awarded to others. The vitriol and contempt against the Western groups from which so-called right-wing extremists are currently manifesting are one such instance. Again, this has something to do with our biases.
- We find the following trends in extremism today. They are not necessarily new, but they had receded into a more distant past and, as we have become a society obsessed with the present and its projection into the future, we have forgotten many lessons of the past.
- The first is that, unlike the Cold War era, we have moved from a preponderance of extremism between countries to extremism within countries. This is especially found in the West since there has been a rapid demographic shift that was poorly managed and has brought different cultures, population groups, and religions in close proximity to each other over a short time span. Adaptation and mutual accommodation take time, which we have not had.
- The second is that otherwise placid Western people are becoming radicalized. Of course, there was native terrorism in the past, even without an ethnic conflict behind it. I would recall the Organisation Armee Secret in France. But never in recent memory have so many people become radicalized and embraced extremist viewpoints. It has not happened overnight, but it is rather a gradual shift which, in the absence of a change of underlying conditions, I can predict will continue and will aggravate until it bears fruit in the form of constant low-intensity violence, crystalized terrorist groups, and even parallel governance structures undermining the state.
- It will be a terrible shock for the French, for instance, to find neighborhoods that have become “zones de non-droit”, where the state police, ambulance, and institutions cannot enter but those neighborhoods have no appreciable immigrant background.
- The third is that extremism is becoming decentralized, helped by technology and by the phenomena of social media echo chambers. Even hostile actors find it difficult to generate enough noise to cover the underlying noise level of social media in order to pull public opinion in their preferred direction. The use of bite-sized pieces of information circulating online and transmitting ideas through humorous messages cannot be restricted through censorship of online chatrooms. The authority that tries to counteract the new extremism by finding and deporting “preachers”, whether religious or seculars, is going to find an unpleasant surprise. To a certain extent, no one person or organization is driving this trend.
- The fourth issue is that, with decentralized radicalization, you will eventually get decentralized collective action through decentralized coordination. We saw this with Wall Street Bets recently, where retail traders coordinated on reddit to apply a short squeeze to big hedge funds, even at the eventual cost of their own money. The losses to Wall Street were significant (over 70 billion across multiple short squeezes) and the impact of it reinforces the confidence of a decentralized movement characterized by a common worldview, a common enemy, and newly discovered collective strength.
- How will we see this applied in other areas? We will see more stochastic terrorism, committed not by organized and professional groups but by lone wolves and groups acting in response to stimuli in the environment – radical speech online and so on. We will see also a tendency towards escalation – a bomb threat becomes a bomb, then becomes a shooting, then becomes more frequent – because decentralized movements, like the stock markets, rely on prior movements to inform new ones.
- I said before that there are certain factors at play in the rise and change of extremism. Of course, technology plays a role – social media, cryptocurrencies, tools for online anonymity. But these are facilitators. Why is extremism actually growing?
- First, I mentioned demographic factors. Some places in the world are seeing extremism because of a youth bulge that cannot be accommodated in the labor market or the marriage market. Others are too old and are seeing extremism because of the burden of taking care of the elder generation, who is also politically influential and have accumulated assets. This is the case of the West, and generational conflict is a terrible thing that often sublimates into other conflicts.
- The second issue is economic. For instance, there was a statistic that the oldest millennial today, 40 years old, has only a quarter of the assets that a Boomer had at his age. Along with the changing economic fortunes, we have also seen a decline in marriage, a decline in pro-social habits, a rise in social pathologies like drug use and alcoholism, and much more. This is the fuel for the populist wave in the West.
- I would quote Charles Murray, an important American social scientist, who wrote in a landmark study, that: “For White working-class men in their 30s and 40s—what should be the prime decades for working and raising a family—participation in the labor force dropped from 96% in 1968 to 79% in 2015. Over that same period, the portion of these men who were married dropped from 86% to 52%. These are stunning changes, and they are visible across the country. In today’s average White working-class neighborhood, about one out of five men in the prime of life aren’t even looking for work; they are living off girlfriends, siblings, or parents, on disability, or else subsisting on off-the-books or criminal income. Almost half aren’t married, with all the collateral social problems that go with large numbers of unattached males. In these communities, about half the children are born to unmarried women, with all the problems that go with growing up without fathers, especially for boys. Drugs also have become a major problem, in small towns as well as in urban areas”.
- These patterns can be found elsewhere, in France and in the UK and, of course, in Greece, Italy, and Spain. And the rise of populist political parties is the first manifestation of this discontent.
- The third issue is the destruction of social capital, institutions, and myths that offer a model for orderly life and of a common good, social status, transcendent purpose. Quoting Charles Murray again, “a significant and growing proportion of the American population is losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society”. The cultural and spiritual crisis in the West has been much commented upon, but I read recently of the extraordinary fall in religiosity in the Middle East and North Africa. And, while the MENA region is apparently losing religion, the Westerners have been losing not only their religion but their secular religions as well. Never before in America’s tumultuous history have the statues of Founding Fathers been torn down, have their names been removed from buildings, and have symbols of state authority (courthouses, police stations) been attacked by ideological mobs calling for their abolishment. Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist, expressed it very well when he said that “they don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions. The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching”.
- This radicalization, as I mentioned before, is not purely a lower-class phenomenon. Just as the Bolsheviks had a powerful attraction among the educated classes in the West, so does the current radicalism find support among educated and otherwise successful people. This is especially problematic when they serve to hide, rationalize and normalize the manifestations of extremism, such as rioting, the destruction of public property, and so on.
- A particularly powerful current phenomenon, rooted in the rapid rise of diversity in the short term, has been the simultaneous manifestation of different strains of extremism in the same geographic space. The last time we saw this was during the pre-War period in Europe when communists and fascists fought in the streets and in parliaments for power. This is what we see everywhere in the West, even within the same ethnic and cultural groups. We see it in the opposition between the Antifa/BLM and the MAGA currents, whose main adherents are of the same Euro-American origin. Things become particularly explosive when the authorities, rather than addressing both, begin playing favorites, normalizing and mainstreaming one current and marginalizing the other. This encourages simultaneous radicalization and escalation, with one side being emboldened by the apparent ease with which it pursues its goals, while the other can pose as a victim and embolden adherents through the confirmation of their worldview.
- The solution is easy to state, hard to implement – people with jobs, families, respect, a stake in the system and integration in a positive social environment do not become extremists, though they sometimes get there by becoming reactionaries. But how do you fix a 50% youth unemployment rate in Greece, 30% in Egypt, Spain, and Italy?
- How do you re-establish trust in fellow citizens, in the wider communities, and in the authorities in such a way that reduces the importance of differences among us in order to underline the commonalities and the common interests?
- It will be difficult, especially since the very way in which we are discussing and dissecting the issue reinforces the divisive tendencies. For instance, we have seen the rise of the use of the word “illiberal”. Usually, that meant a narrow-minded, ungenerous person. Today, it is a catch-all term for dictators, authoritarians, competitive authoritarian systems, democratic nationalists, conservatives, etc. If you are a partisan of the other side and want to put your ideological enemies in the same box as Kim Jong-Un, then this is a feature, not a bug. But this encourages extremism and it obfuscates more than it reveals. Or our promiscuous use of the concept of hate speech or hate crime, which are ill-defined, unevenly applied, and carry dangerous connotations of the inequality of some groups and individuals before the law. The political scientist Timur Quran addressed this, by saying that speech codes and formal or informal censorship leads to a situation where “private truths and public lies” make us unable to accurately analyze the situation, which is why we are then caught off guard by powerful movements that seem to spring from nowhere. The shock of Brexit or of the Trump election qualify.
- We cannot begin to have a framework for addressing extremism until we are sure that we are not, ourselves, adding to it through our actions or the biases which inform our worldview.
About the author:
Flavius CABA-MARIA, President, Middle East Political and Economic Institute